Monthly Archives: September 2014

Xian and the Terracotta Warriors.

293km/h we are streaking across central China in one of those famous ultra fast trains. Pausing periodically at undistinguished towns and cities that all feature the same crane topped apartment blocks, building, building, building. There is widespread fog or mist on the land, the locals refer to it as haze, but I think it is just regular old smog. There was talk of a typhoon at the coast but I see little evidence of it blowing away the clouds and fumes. The whole landscape has a vaguely ghostly air about it, I cannot see very far so fields, villages, towns and cities, chimneys, factories and chemical works loom out of the murk and then are gone, in a flash.

We left Xian exactly at 11.00am, obviously, and I felt a bit of a twinge, the City had grown on me over the last few days. I was staying within the walls of the old city, seven kilometers around, and there was always a bustle going on. Buses loaded with commuters, streams of bicycles and scooters, happy walking shoppers, laughing students, the click clack of high heels and the clatter of suitcase wheels over concrete. The sidewalks were extremely wide, as not only did they serve the pedestrians but also doubled as parking areas for cars, vans and even buses. Eyes required in back of head! Earlier I had been met at the train station after a nine hour ride down the Yellow River Valley by Monica holding a sign with my name on it, that was a first. She and Mr Lee duly escorted me to my hotel with promises that I should see them again the next morning at 10.00am. Not an unreasonable hour I thought and agreed. Morning came and we piled into Mr Lee’s van and headed off to see the main attraction here in Xian, The Terracotta Army.

It is now Thursday and we were off to see the Eighth Wonder of the World on Monday and I am still not sure what to say about it. I have this trepidation, and maybe you do too, that when you have heard for years and years how wonderful something is, that when you approach it you get this feeling, well it can’t be that great. You have heard the story no doubt about the farmer in the mid 1970s who was digging a well on his land and found a cache of two thousand year old terracotta statues of soldiers, horses, chariots and the like. The archeological find of the Century, rivaling King Tutankhamen. The world went mad, foreigners, frowned upon by the Chinese Government of the day descended on Xian to see the phenomenon. The local population, lacking the funds, were indifferent.

All that has changed. The land of the well digging farmer (I shook his hand!) and that of his neighbors is now a vast tourist destination. People from all over China and the world now flock to the site, there are restaurants, cafes, an enormous ‘craft’ market, shops, parkland, cultivated orchards, public loos, the whole shebang. There I was with my trepidation and Monica, giving me the spiel. She was actually very good, very knowledgeable, personable and had a sense of humor so I felt a kind of relaxation as we approached the first site. Resembling an aircraft hanger, truly huge, we, the people were completely dwarfed. And there they were, in serried ranks, thousands and thousands of infantrymen, each face unique, based on the artist who created it, staring at me across two thousand years. My jaw did drop. A long way. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. There was no getting away from it, this is not a place for cynics, trepidation, or even flippancy. The speed tours raced past led by their flag waving guides but Monica was content to let me just stop and stare, wonder and think, contemplate and reflect. It was the kind of experience that brings one down to earth with a distinct THUMP.

Next Beijing. I wonder if the smog is as bad as the media suggests…….. It is!

Many warriors.

Many warriors.

The famous view that you see when you first walk in.

The famous view that you see when you first walk in.

With horses.

With horses.

I really liked the horses.

I really liked the horses.

I may have just passed this guy in the street!

I may have just passed this guy in the street!

The most famous one.

The most famous one.

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The Great Wall of China in Jiayuguan

I am in Jiayuguan (pronounced Jiaooguan and spoken very fast. Just one syllable) which is a not very nice place but does mark the extreme Western point of the Great Wall. I visited what is referred to as ‘ The Overlook’ today and I was the only person there. No guides, no market place, no cars in the huge parking lot. Maybe it has something to do with the National Holiday. Fireworks started going off very early and have continued throughout the day. Boom Bang Bang echoing off the high rise apartment blocks. I made an attempt at looking it up and all I can come up with is ‘Mooncake Day’. Sounds delightful doesn’t it.

The grumpy driver picked me up and we headed out of town past smoking chimneys, blast furnaces, mills and great big horrible cooling towers until we reached the country. We parked, outside the parking lot, and the driver indicated I should get out and walk….that way, pointing. OK, fine. Off I set, past a tranquil lake with a couple of fisherfolk until I reached the remains of a fort, with a ramp ascending. I ascended. And found myself on The Great Wall of China. That has to be life defining moment. I walked, up again, sigh. Ramps, stairs, nothing to clutch hold of for support, no rail. Here are some views:

Stretching away for thousands of miles.

Stretching away for thousands of miles.

Right into the sun, but quite awe inspiring none the less.

Right into the sun, but quite awe inspiring none the less.

The Gobi in the background and one of those strange Silk Road memorials in the foreground.

The Gobi in the background and one of those strange Silk Road memorials in the foreground.

Right into the sun. This could either be an interesting effect or just terrible.

Right into the sun. This could either be an interesting effect or just terrible.

More of same. Wall. Desert.

More of same. Wall. Desert.

Not sure if I could have walked up there.

Not sure if I could have walked up there.

The position of the sun was problematical.

The position of the sun was problematical.

Crescent Lake. Dunhuang. Photos.

I know this "thumbnail" looks a bit dark. If you right click it (Windows) or Control click (Mac) you should be able to view in full screen. Quite a pretty vista.

I know this “thumbnail” looks a bit dark. If you right click it (Windows) or Control click (Mac) you should be able to view in full screen.
Quite a pretty vista.

A close up, but I think it is better with the jaw dropping background.

A close up, but I think it is better with the jaw dropping background.

In the foreground is the lip of the dune I climbed.

In the foreground is the lip of the dune I climbed.

Part of the merry band!

Part of the merry band!

I liked this one though it was nearly dark by then.

I liked this one though it was nearly dark by then.

Shadows lengthen.

Shadows lengthen.

That was 'my dune'. You can see the route.

That was ‘my dune’. You can see the route.

A photo from a rest stop.

A photo from a rest stop.

Partial view.

Partial view.

Early on the climb.

Early on the climb.

What a team!

What a team!

Crescent Lake. Dunhuang.

Crescent Lake. Dunhuang.

Thanks to the lady at reception I put my computer almost on top of the router. Much better upload speed.

Crescent Lake, Dunhuang.

I rode a camel! A quite respectable beast, it didn’t spit at me or even attempt to bite me. It’s two humps were comfortable to lodge between, it was an almost relaxing ride. Terror of course as it lurched perilously close to a sheer drop of two hundred feet but it was only sand so I figured it might be a soft landing. The point of the camel ride was somewhat elusive, I thought I was riding up, and up, the massive sand dune to gain an aerial view of the famous Crescent Lake far below. But no sooner had we reached the Dune’s summit where the view might have been possible we, the camel and I, turned around and headed down again. Wretched thing. All was not entirely lost however, we came to the camel turnaround where I genteelly alighted after the massive lurch of the camel kneeling and set off down the path in search of the elusive lake. I found it. It has survived the ravages of the desert for hundreds of years due to its unique position amongst the massive dunes which apparently flow round it with the prevailing winds, rather than over it. It is fed by a spring. At lake level it was quite pretty but for the full “wow” factor it was clear that I would have to climb one of the aforementioned massive dunes and take in the whole scene. Hyperbole you might think it is but when I say massive these dunes were huge, enormous, gigantic, and of course, they were made of sand. Not easy climbing. I sat at the bottom of one dune and contemplated my fate. Others were climbing but they appeared to be students, vacationing, and out for a lark. I didn’t notice anyone like me, I mean not only in accumulation of years but also home base. Nobody from the West at all, not one. Come on me, don’t let the side down, we can show ’em, so off I went, UP. There were short poles on the surface joined together with rope which did actually make some sort of purchase for my shoes and at least prevented me sinking into the sand up to my knees. Steep though, very steep, almost vertical and I soon had to stop. As did the little group I found myself leading. We sat in a huddle gasping, smiling and gazing upward, can we do this? Onward with cries of Let’s Go, and on we went. I think they were mimicking me, not sure, but we ascended and our group grew. Another rest, more smiling and gazing upward, I began to feel a bit Forrest Gumpish. It took two more rests to reach the summit, we all made it and yes, the view was spectacular, well worth the climb. A sort of international camaraderie developed in the group and we all took photos of each other as well as the Lake far far below. The people looked like ants down there and we all sat around in the sand watching the crazy sledders careening down the slope, the ultra lights circling overhead,  the rich people in their choppers and the ever changing shadows on the dunes as the sun set. I have been fortunate to see a few beautiful lakes about the place, Maggiore, Tahoe,  Lomond, Como, Windemere, Ness, Neagh, Superior even, and the like, but this was unique. It was like a painting that constantly changed. I was transfixed and took far too many photographs.

We all sat there until almost dusk, more people came up, gasping, sweating but laughing as they reached the top. At the market in the parking lot brightly colored scarves were sold and, purchased by the ladies to keep the sand out of their hair, eyes and ears they all made a colorful show. Off road vehicles appeared to ferry the sledders down, I was really tempted to offer money for a ride back down. That was a concern, discussed with enormous difficulty, how do we get back down! We can’t possibly follow the short poles back down, it would take forever and be way too difficult. People were actually doing it, awkwardly and dangerously, there were frequent and inelegant sprawls. Casting around for a solution I came across an early experience in the Scottish Hills with my sister, scree jumping. It can’t be that much different. Shoes off I tried it. It worked. So we set off, leaping and bounding, leaning backwards in case of falls, and running so we didn’t sink into the sand. It was hilarious. People clapped. So much fun.

    Looks like I have used up all your time so I’ll stop now. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to tell you some of the other delights of Dunhuang in another post. This train ride has mostly been across the desert tho which one is a bit of a mystery.  Some guide books suggest it is one of the Gobis, yes, there is more than one, the Greater and the Smaller. Others say it is the Taklamakan, the largest in China. I don’t know, but a desert it is. For over an hour we passed through a wind farm, an hour. That suggests that it was some sixty miles long and I have no idea how wide, the windmills stretched to the horizon and out of sight. Maybe someone read the memo about pollution and coal fired power stations.
I know this "thumbnail" looks a bit dark. If you right click it (Windows) or Control click (Mac) you should be able to view in full screen. Quite a pretty vista.

I know this “thumbnail” looks a bit dark. If you right click it (Windows) or Control click (Mac) you should be able to view in full screen.
Quite a pretty vista.

A close up, but I think it is better with the jaw dropping background.

A close up, but I think it is better with the jaw dropping background.

In the foreground is the lip of the dune I climbed.

In the foreground is the lip of the dune I climbed.

Part of the merry band!

Part of the merry band!

I liked this one though it was nearly dark by then.

I liked this one though it was nearly dark by then.

Shadows lengthen.

Shadows lengthen.

That was 'my dune'. You can see the route.

That was ‘my dune’. You can see the route.

A photo from a rest stop.

A photo from a rest stop.

Partial view.

Partial view.

Early on the climb.

Early on the climb.

What a team!

What a team!

Crescent Lake or Yueyaquan in Chinese, Dunhuang.

Crescent Lake or Yueyaquan in Chinese, Dunhuang.

Turpan, Xinjiang, China.

Described in the books as an oasis town on the edge of the Gobi Desert I would have to disagree. Town, perhaps it was, but now there are massive developments being built on the outskirts transforming it into quite a large city. All the new apartment block have solar panels on their roofs, interesting. Last night I wandered about and took a look. Right outside my hotel there is a boating lake, with boats, so I strolled around that along with other inhabitants. There were students reading, Moms with babies, Grandparents with kids feeding the fish, there was a stage setup for the Regional Singing and Dancing Competition, restaurants and bars, some shops and many elderly gentlemen with nets on long poles, pulling garbage out of the water, good for them. I went in search of the legendary John’s Cafe, walked miles, failed, returned to hotel for dinner which was not great and went to bed.

Uo early this morning to go on my tour. I’m not really a tour type person but I can’t figure out a way to persuade a taxi driver to drive me thirty odd miles to see one thing, then another thirty to see something else, so a tour it had to be. Anna, my guide, was very pleasant though a little severe and my driver was the cautious type, all good I suppose. Off we went down the aforementioned expressway and after the thirty miles turned off onto a single lane road and climbed out of the greenery of the oasis into…The Gobi Desert. How about that, I got really rather excited, many pauses  for photos. We followed the base of Flaming Mountain for a while, it’s 75 miles long and part of the Tien Shan Range (wasn’t I just in that Range in Kyrgyzstan?) until we came to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. These are set high on the cliffs above a verdant river valley and were occupied by Buddhist monks in the 5th to 14th centuries. A very tranquil and idyllic place and perfect for meditating, I’m sure. The monks decorated their caves with paintings and murals and the cave ceilings feature many, if not hundreds, of images of the Buddha. Unfortunately the Europeans came along in the late Nineteenth Century and removed the murals from the walls, packed them off to Europe where they were subsequently destroyed.

Back down from the desert we headed for a an explanation of the Karez. Fear not, I had never heard this word before either. The ancient inhabitants worked out that they could extend the oasis in which they dwelt by drilling wells into the underground water that they discovered about 30 odd feet beneath them that flowed down from the Tien Shan and Flaming mountains. So they did, they drilled hundreds if not thousands of wells. Then someone suggested, back in 206 BC during the Han Dynasty, that it might be a great idea to join up the wells, thirty feet down and create a kind of underground river, thereby avoiding evaporation and using the natural gradient to assist the water to flow. Turpan flourished becoming a major junction of the Silk Road where caravans could rest, feed their herds and pay taxes. Brilliant! Not only that but the Karez is still in use today, there are 3,100 miles of underground channels irrigating the widespread vineyards and other crops. This in an area with an annual rainfall of .32 of an inch.

On then to the ruined city of Jiaohe which provided protection to the Silk Road caravans. Built on an island where a river splits and then rejoins it is perfectly defensible, it  has no city walls instead relying on the river cliffs which are over one hundred feet high. There is not much left of this city dating from 108 BC as you might imagine. It was finally abandoned in the 13th century after being sacked by Genghis Khan. I spent over two hours there, much to the amusement of Anna, looking around and imagining how it must have been all that time ago for the seven thousand inhabitants. I hope some of the photos are worth looking at, lets see.

IMG_0447

Into the desert.

Grapes growing for a very palatable Gobi Desert Red?

Grapes growing for a very palatable Gobi Desert Red?

Some of the Thousand Buddha Caves.

Some of the Thousand Buddha Caves.

City ruins.

City ruins.

This was a big City.

This was a big City.

More ruins.

More ruins.

Walls. Well, remains of walls.

Walls. Well, remains of walls.

More desert.

More desert.

Leaving Urumqi.

It’s the little things that make this trip exciting. Not only have I managed to obtain a ticket but I have negotiated my way across the City to the train station, passed through two security checks, had my ticket inspected three times and am now in my four seater compartment on train number K596, coach ten, seat number eleven. We leave Urumqi at eleven twenty five and arrive in Turpan at one twenty five, the distance is two hundred kilometers. I am just a little thrilled as we will skirt the Taklamakan desert on our way to one of the Silk Road’s legendary cities. Ancient forts, towering mountains and narrow passes await. I have to say though, it has not all been plane sailing.

      Yesterday I tried negotiating this trip with the hotel staff and after much gesticulating, phone calls and scribbling in Chinese I think the total cost came out at one thousand eight hundred Dollars, this for two nights in a hotel, transfers and a train ride. No, no, I said, this is out of my price range and promptly got a bit depressed. The hotel resembled an armed camp. Two truck loads of armed military were on duty at all times, surrounding the entrance and parking lot. Not only that but there was a twenty member SWAT team, complete with camo’ uniforms on duty within the hotel itself, plus dogs and hulking gentlemen with wires in their ears. I felt inclined to leave ASAP because at that price I could fly to Hong Kong and forget the whole adventure. Despairing somewhat I texted back home and soothing words came back, reminding me that I have contacts here. Yes I do!  I have a friend who has a daughter who has a friend who runs a travel agency in Beijing who has a friend who runs a trans China travel agency. We had exchanged emails back in May and she said to call if I needed help and I did. One call and the price plummeted considerably, tickets and hotels are booked, transfers are organized, tours of ancient ruins are planned, even food is scheduled. In fact it took most of the day on the phone and the computer but here I am, in my seat, pulling out of Urumqi into the desert.  Plan A is on track, as it were (sorry).
     Clearly I was misled about the great firewall, everything seems to be working, so far.
     Sorry this is a little brief but wanted everyone to know that I have moved on from the big city to more rural scenes, it is much better. For the first time on this trip I have a guide tomorrow. I am a little nervous about this as I tend to go my own way but if she can get me to places where I couldn’t get to by myself then so be it.
I’ll let you know how it goes plus some photos!

To Osh and back.

Here we are then, at the end of over a month in the ‘Stans for tomorrow I leave and fly to China. Yes. China. Am I just a tad intimidated, yes. Do I know but one word of Mandarin, no. Can I even use chopsticks, no. But then again after over four weeks in Central Asia, where the prevalent language is Russian, I seem to have done all right. Maybe I am feeling just a little bit braver to cross over to an entirely new culture after this experience. I really was not prepared for such a culture shock as I received here. The giant billboards all selling their wares in flashing Cyrillic, the menus, oh the menus, totally incomprehensible, the food, what am I eating, nobody could tell me, the supermarket checker, pardon? what? But the taxi drivers all knew what “how much” meant, even if they did have to write the amount on the dirty windows. A smile or a grin goes a long way when someone has been patiently explaining something for five minutes and you have no idea what it is. Take heart English speaking people, other cultures imagine that by speaking louder and louder you will understand better. Amusing aside: I was in a big electronics market here in Bishkek and I watched what I imagined was a crowd of American roughnecks from the oil rigs in Kazakhstan barge their way in. The biggest and most heavily tattooed member of the team approached a young lady in her phone cover booth and said really loudly “Say, where do you guys keep the portable music players? Ya know, Walkmans”. I mean, where had this guy been? Did she look like a dispenser of Walkmans? Could she understand a word? Did he really think that there was a chance of buying a Walkman in the whole of Kyrgyzstan?

This is the first time I have sat down to write a post with no preconceived idea of what to write about so I will try and be a little more lucid. I left Bishkek for a town in the south, near to the Chinese border, called Osh. I had heard there was a bus, twice a week, that would carry me over the border to Kashgar from there, albeit it would take twenty hours, but the rumour spoke of beds on the bus, so I took a chance. I wandered the travel agent street asking agents over and over “Bus? Kashgar?” and all I received was shaking heads and “no bus, Kashgar” but I clung on to the rumour and finally found a local guide who offered to drive me to the ticket office for this mythical bus. Some way out of town we pulled into what could only be described as a ruin from Soviet times. All collapsed concrete, rust, stray dogs, you get the picture. Hmm, I thought, this could be awkward, this looks like no bus station I have ever seen. But there it was, The Bus. Looking like something from the Fifties (1950s) it was filled with beds, three levels high and four beds wide. I was only a little bit tempted but then I was told that it was leaving in two hours and the next one would not leave until the following week. This change of schedule was due to the Chinese border closing for two days for a national holiday. Oh no, I am not ready for being this spontaneous, so that plan was abandoned. Then I got a little sicker than I had been. My cold got worse and I developed what is politely called in America, stomach flue. I felt dreadful for 24 hours and was so pleased I wasn’t on a twenty hour bus ride.

     My brain returned and I decided that I would give up on Osh, fly back to Bishkek and find a plane to take me to Urumqi in China. Up early this morning, took the short hop back to Bishkek, it is only a forty minute, $40 flight. Here I am sitting in a charming garden with fountains, flowers, apple trees, a gazebo, table service and pots of tea. There is a plane to Urumqi tomorrow at 10.00 am and I have a ticket so plan B seems to have worked. I am slightly disappointed that the bus didn’t work out but I am aware now that when I think I may be being intrepid others may think I am being just a little foolhardy! Apparently my Angels will only put up with so much.

Onward then, China here I come. You may or may not have heard of the “Great Firewall of China”. The Internet is heavily censored. Apparently there is no access to Google, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter (Skype or WhatsApp, unknown) so whether or not I will be able to access WordPress (my blog site) or even email for the next few weeks remains to be seen. The security gurus claim that within five minutes of entering China all my devices will be monitored and infected. I have installed a VPN on the computer so anyone monitoring my activities will be led to believe I am in Holland, but will it be enough? I don’t know.

So don’t be alarmed if I go dark for a while, though hopefully everything will work and I can keep you up to date on my progress from Western China all the way to Beijing.

We shall see.